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Upland soil functions under organic grazing systems

Dr Sheila Palmer (SoG), Professor Joseph Holden (SoG), Mark Phillips (Natural England), Dr Paul Kay (SoG)

Project partner(s):  Natural England (CASE)

Contact email:


Much of the UK upland landscape, in common with other upland regions of the world with cool, humid or acidic environments, is dominated by soils that are rich in organic matter and that provide diverse ecosystem services.  In particular, the UK uplands are a critical zone for water supply and for flood risk to urban areas, and as part of the UK Industrial Strategy it is critical that we understand how to enhance the ability of soils to secure our water supplies, and reduce flood vulnerability particularly in the face of climate change. Typically, upland landscapes either are inaccessible to farm machinery, or are unfavourable for intensive production, but they are commonly used for extensive domestic livestock grazing. This project tackles issues head-on by studying the role that upland sheep farming has on soil properties so that Natural England and other policy makers and practitioners can enhance management strategies.

There are a growing number of organic sheep farms but it is not known whether this farming method has any impact on the soil properties and therefore on ecosystem service provision. There is potential for soil biological, physical and chemical properties to vary under organic compared with conventional sheep farming systems. In turn such changes may influence hydrological functions such as water storage and transfer, carbon storage and water quality. The differences may also vary enormously between soil types from peat to stagnogleys to acid brown earths and so a range of soil types need to be studied.

The project aims to improve understanding of the role of upland management in maintaining and enhancing our natural capital and delivering benefits upstream and downstream in flood and drought resilience and good water quality. Upland communities are already economically challenged and face an uncertain future following Brexit. Natural England need to determine ways that enable grazing management in these communities to continue and thrive while at the same time reducing dependence on energy-costly manufactured fertilizers, and protecting valuable soil functions.


In this project, you will work with leading scientists at Leeds in partnership with Natural England to investigate differences in soil functions between conventional and organic sheep farming. The focus will be on upland organo-mineral soils. Examples of objectives depending on the successful applicant’s personal skills and interests include:

  1. Comparing organo-mineral soil hydrological properties under different sheep farming methods (e.g. water storage and transport processes and potential implications for natural flood management strategies)
  2. Measuring water quality, including aquatic carbon loss and veterinary pharmaceuticals produced from soils under different management
  3. Measuring the effects of organic and conventional sheep farming on soil carbon storage and release

Potential for high impact outcome

There is a lack of information about organo-mineral soils and their functions and how they respond to different types of management. Thus the research will yield highly publishable material. The work will directly inform Natural England’s understanding of grazing management impacts and this will be of importance for policy development and potentially influence future agricultural payment schemes.


The student will be part of the River Basins Processes and Management cluster in the School of Geography and water@leeds which is the world’s largest interdisciplinary university-based water research centre. These groups provide access to routine training through seminars, structured feedback on project ideas and technical training. The supervisory team will provide training on soil hydrological, physical, chemical and biological analysis. Natural England will host the student for 3 months to ensure that the student gains experience of practical and policy implications of their work and in the functioning and structure of a government agency. The successful PhD student will have access to a broad spectrum of training workshops that range from technical through to generic skills building.

Student profile

The student should have a strong interest in environmental problems, fieldwork, soils, hydrology and chemistry. It is expected that the student will have a relevant masters degree or equivalent experience. The student should have a valid driving licence for use in the UK.

CASE Partner

The proposal has been agreed as a CASE project with Natural England providing extra funding additional to the NERC student stipend and a great opportunity to receive training from the partner in practical and policy matters.

Related undergraduate subjects:

  • Environmental science
  • Geography
  • Soil science